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The Long And Winding Road
The Lincoln Highway: Utah Played A Key Role In Taming West For Cars
Hal Schindler
Published: 12/05/1993 Category: Features Page: D1

In the general order of things, the American frontier was pushed back by pioneers who first followed game trails, then Indian trails, trappers' trails, and finally wagon roads to settle the way west. And when wagon roads were unsuitable for horseless carriages, the next step forward was the automobile highway.

For many years, as Noble Warrum Sr., editorial writer for The Salt Lake Tribune, phrased it in 1919, the only highways in Utah were those following "the lines of least resistance" winding through woods and along canyons between settlements. But in some seasons, those roads became impassable as washouts, landslides and flooding exacted a toll. It was difficult enough for wagons and animals, but after the first decade of this century, a "good roads" movement gained momentum across the country, as the motoring public demanded better highways. Automobiles were the dream of the future, but limitations on water, fuel, tires and mechanical repairs contained the dream to a mild sigh.

Rallying cry: Still, America envisioned an ocean-to-ocean highway, just as the railroad a half-century earlier had pushed across the continent. New York to San Francisco was a rallying cry that would not be denied. Most prominent and the most vocal of booster groups was the Lincoln Highway Association; it certainly had the greatest effect on Utah. Yet because of misunderstandings, the state came away with a sour reputation at a critical time in highway expansion. And it began with the Lincoln Highway.

Eighty years ago last September, the Lincoln Highway Association organized and proposed a route--named in honor of Abraham Lincoln--across America through South Pass on the Continental Divide, stretching from New York to San Francisco, from Times Square to Lincoln Park. And in a modern reflection of that 1913 LHA meeting, a 1993 Lincoln Highway Association has been created, organized to preserve and restore what the earlier group helped build. (Rusty W. Andrus is president; Jesse Petersen and Alan Stockland vice presidents of the new Utah Chapter.)

Because it was then anticipated to be the most difficult terrain, the proposed 1913 segment through Utah was carefully defined. From Evanston, Wyoming, it would cross the line to Castle Rock, then Echo, Coalville and Wanship to Salt Lake City; then westward to Garfield,Grantsville, Timpie, Kanaka Ranch (at Iosepa), Fish Springs, Kearney's Ranch and Ibapah to Ely, Nevada.

Revised route: Two years later, LHA officials changed their minds, revising the route from Garfield to Tooele, Clover, Johnson Pass, Granite Mountain, Overland Canyon to Ibapah. On paper it looked good, clipping forty-eight miles off the first proposal; but from an engineering standpoint, it was disaster. In an era before federal highway funding became de rigueur, each state was responsible for providing its own way to go, so to speak.

The LHA was adamant. Its principals--F.A. Seiberling, who was president both of LHA and the Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co.; John Wyllis of the Overland Motor Co.; and Carl G. Fisher, vice president of LHA--pledged $150,000 among them to finance the Utah segment. They were certain they could find road materials on the desert (remember, it was not an asphalt highway, but an improved graveled road that was to be cut across the continent. Paving came much later).

In those days, a drive in the country meant taking a supply of tires along, as well as a shovel and a couple of goodly lengths of rope. A "pothole" in a 1915 road could wreck a car, or at least the front end of the family flivver. And who hasn't heard anecdotes about starting auto engines with hand cranks ("Grandpa was out there cranking when it kicked back and threw his shoulder out, broke his elbow, too")?

Ranch respite: One California diarist motoring through Utah in 1927 recalled heading for Orr's Ranch, a recommended Tooele County service stop some seventy miles from the Nevada border. "There is a road to Orr's, crossing from a good raised highway known as the Goodyear cutoff that comes in from Granite Mountain, but the rest of the distance is wasteland with no regular road. To cross, just go out anyway on the hard 'dobe desert. We found one man and his wife trying to make the trip to Orr's and they had lost their canteen. They were on their honeymoon in a brand new Buick roadster, and was some scared. We went out of our way and furnished them water and they started back, saying they would have vengeance on whoever sent them on this route."

Continuing his own journey, our good Samaritan motorist jotted this testimonial in his diary: "Mr. [Daniel] Orr would like the traveling public to know he sells gas for 35 cents, eastern oil for 35 cents, western oil for 25 cents. Meals can be had for from 50 to 75 cents. One man drove in here with 40 gallons of gas that he had toted clear across the desert only to find plenty at hand at the same price. Was misinformed west of here. Not only is the public abused, but my business is hurt considerably,' said Mr. Orr." He added one other travel tip: "The Goshute Indians hereabouts are peaceable and honest."

Spry's route: But back at the Capitol, Utah's Governor William Spry was not nearly as certain the Lincoln Highway group knew what it was talking about. He cooled their ardor quickly by countering with an alternate route following the early emigrant wagon trails that skirted the Great Salt Lake Desert and crossed the Nevada line at Wendover, not Ely.

Spry's highway plan called for the route to head for Grantsville from Mills Junction rather than turning to Tooele and Stockton. At Grantsville, the road would proceed to Delle, Knolls and points west. It saved many more miles than the LHA proposal, and fit comfortably the mathematical axiom that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line. That was not what the LHA wanted to hear. Austin F. Bement, vice president and secretary of the association, made it clear that LHA and Utah were in agreement as far as including Salt Lake City as gateway to the West. But from there the road would lead to Ely, not Wendover.

Precisely what persuasions were brought to bear isn't that clear from this distant perspective, but the thought of thousands of touring motorists bouncing through central Nevada for San Francisco or Los Angeles could account for much of the clout. While it may have been enticing for Nevadans, the Utah Road Commission was concentrating on the bottom line--the bill for constructing the Lincoln Highway through the state. In Utah's view, the straight shot to Wendover was just fine. So was the proposed new name: the Victory Highway.

Old wagon roads in Utah were all but untouched by improvements; in some places, the ruts made by Overland stages were still evident and could tear the undercarriage from an auto in one scraping wrench. There was little reason to spend money on the roads (horses could easily avoid the rough spots), but after motorists began chugging along the trails, the Utah section got worse rather than better.

Raise the cash: That was when the LHA organizers came up with the $125,000 to push their project through to Ely. By that route the total distance from New York to San Francisco came to 3,389 miles, but after a dozen years of straightening and improvements, it would whittle to 3,142 miles.

By 1919, Utah persisted in pushing the so-called Wendover Cutoff, while LHA fought for its southern route. A furious round of lobbying and political infighting ensued, but when the enormously important Federal Highway Act became law in November 1921, limiting federal aid to a selected system of highways in each state, the Utah Road Commission submitted its recommendation: the Wendover route.

LHA offered Utah another $15,000 to match federal money to finish its section of Lincoln highway, and ultimately it and the Victory Highway were completed. But the squabbling didn't end there. Utah insisted its Wendover Cutoff to Nevada become part of the official designated U.S. highway system. Later, when the national numbered system of highways came into being, it effectively obliterated all LHA markers and brought an end to the "good roads movements."

In hindsight, Utah officials suggested the LHA was driven more by the romance of its own publicity ("Our route follows the Overland Mail and the Pony Express") than by common sense. "Just what did the Lincoln Highway Association officials expect from a sparsely settled state, with more than one-half of its area owned by the federal government, whose resources have always been strained to the limit?" one Utah official asked. No one answered.

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